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Education for a Caring Society: Classroom Relationships and Moral Action

reviewed by Barbara S. Stengel - May 10, 2007

coverTitle: Education for a Caring Society: Classroom Relationships and Moral Action
Author(s): D. Kay Johnston
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807747181 , Pages: 98, Year: 2006
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D. Kay Johnston's slim volume Education for a Caring Society: Classroom Relationships and Moral Action is both just right and not quite right. It very nicely provides a "missing chapter" to Jackson, Boostrom and Hansen's (1998) classic qualitative study of The Moral Life of Schools, as I will explain below. However, it also offers only a truncated version of her topic because Johnston does not frame her inquiry in the reality that classroom relationships are triadic, that they always involve some subject matter as a "third" that mediates the link between persons in relation. I will return to these two claims later in this review. First, let's sketch out just what Johnston is up to.

Johnston begins with a self-proclaimed interest in education as a vehicle for social justice and societal transformation (p. xi), and then expresses her commitment to shed light on relationships in schools, student-student as well as teacher-student. Both interest and commitment arise out of the authors own teaching experience. She signals her focus on trust (encouraged by the teacher) and voice (of teacher and student) as critical elements as she emphasizes the "importance of classroom relationships" (p. 4). Classroom relationships matter because "learning is embedded in relationships" (p. 16). Johnston also signals, early on, the prescriptive implications of her claims: "Teaching about relationships&should become an explicit part of society's conversations about schooling. This aspect of schooling should be part of all teachers' knowledge base, and developing this language and this thinking needs to be part of teacher education both at the pre- and at the in-service levels" (p. 5). She is, I think, quite right about this.

Johnston offers a theoretical perspective on moral development that reflects her own educational and intellectual journey. From Jean Piaget, she takes the importance of a developmental perspective. From Lawrence Kohlberg, she learns a useful empirical methodology and an eye for justice. From Carol Gilligan, she gleans the insight that responsibility is rooted in relationships. In her own research on moral development in young people, the author has discovered the value of thinking in both justice (or principled) and care (or relational) terms. As a result, Johnston settles on semiclinical interviews in the Piagetian tradition as a methodology for her study. She uses both justice and care orientations as lenses for interpreting her data because, she maintains, both justice and care offer different views of the self in relation to others.

The central chapters of the book (3, 4 and 5) present evidence gleaned from interviews with six teachers selected by convenience and confidence. Five women and one man with whom Johnston herself had ongoing professional relationships are the informants for this dissection of classroom relationships. Each chapter has a different focus. Chapter 3 offers descriptions of how the informant teachers conceived of their own work with respect to both relationships with students and relationships among students. Responsibility, Caring, Conflict, and Building Relationships as a Moral Act are the subheadings. Chapter 4 focuses on the language of classroom relationships, claiming to link language to cognitive function as well as personal interaction and expressed feelings. Johnston pulls terms such as fair, right, respect, community, caring, connecting, and collaboration directly from teachers' talk and considers how each term figures in teachers' reflections about their classroom work. Chapter 5 explores problems in relationships, particularly the way students silence one another wittingly or unwittingly. Johnston sheds light on the complex negotiation of self as individual and self as social in a discussion that focuses on shifting the culture of schooling toward an explicit culture of relation and care. She acknowledges that this requires holding "both the conflict and the comfort of relationships" (p. 62), viewing conflict not as a problem but as an opportunity to grow.

Education for a Caring Society ends with a chapter of recommendations which focus on language and listening. That is, Johnston urges educators to pay attention to developing relationships, and to teach explicitly that we are social selves, understandable in relation to others. This attention requires openness to, and facility with, the language of relationships as well as the courage and solidarity to listen to and imagine the other fully.

In the books last paragraph, Johnston states her goal somewhat more modestly than she does at the beginning: "to begin a conversation to map those [classroom] relationships" that are so crucial to students' learning (p. 81). With respect to this modest goal, she is unquestionably successful. In Education for a Caring Society, Johnston models the kind of conversation with educator colleagues that she maintains is necessary to enliven public schooling. It is in this dialogue that Johnston provides the chapter I have long felt was missing in Jackson, Boostrom and Hansen's (1998) The Moral Life of Schools. Jackson et al. developed a rich set of categories of moral influence within classrooms, an "observer's guide" gleaned from their own morally-tuned observations of multiple teachers at work. That guide focused on two broad types of moral influences: moral instruction and moral practice. Missing was the delineation of a third type of influence: the moral relationships between teacher and student and student and student, both planned and spontaneous. Johnston's book offers that.

Nonetheless, Education for a Caring Society left me unsatisfied. Her decision to design her inquiry in the Piaget-Kohlberg-Gilligan moral development tradition does not work to unpack the more complex phenomenon of classroom relationships, relationships that exist in the context of, and are mediated by, academic as well as moral mandates.

Johnston chooses to interview successful classroom teachers to get at the language of teaching generally and classroom relationships in particular. This makes sense. She asks them five very general and open-ended questions to prompt but not determine the focus of their responses. Again, this is defensible. But there are several problems. One is her sample selectionthe choice of a predominantly female group. Johnston doesn't acknowledge that gender might make a difference in the way teachers talk about their work, especially with respect to relationships. She doesn't tell us whether these are elementary or secondary teachers, another factor that might make a difference in how they think and talk about classroom relationships. Nor does she triangulate her data. There are no systematic classroom observations of the informants nor is there any effort to tap the teachers' students as informants about their understanding and experience of classroom relationships. The voices of these six particular teachers are accepted uncritically as reliable. This may be enough to "start a conversation." It is not enough to ground even the most limited conclusions about the nature of classroom relationships.

My real concern is that the methodological limitations of Johnston's study defeat her ability to engage the complex purposes of public schooling and, in fact, undercut her own desire to integrate the moral dimensions of teaching and learning into the academic focus that so dominates the landscape of contemporary schooling. By focusing on relationships as moral, she fails to explicate relationships as also, and interestingly, academic.

This shows up in the questions she asks (regarding classroom interaction and relationships but not about the intersection of content and interaction) and in the kinds of statements she takes to be significant. Throughout the central chapters of the book, Johnston's discussion fails to acknowledge that in classroom relationships, there is always a "third, a mediating subject matter.

As a result, the question of the link between the moral dimensions of schooling and the academic dimensions goes unexplored. Johnston unwittingly makes it easier to dismiss classroom relationships as "moral" and, though perhaps important, not central to teachers' mandate.

Still, there are good reasons to read this book and to share it with present and future teachersas I did with my graduate students. As one of my students argues, this book clearly reminds us that

&we should quit 'hiding' the hidden curriculum in schools. It shouldn't be embedded and unspoken, but rather explicitly put out there for students to notice, discuss, question, and (hopefully) buy into it. They need to see it in actionnot just through our modeling, but also with actual open discussion (C. Minnich, personal communication, March 28, 2007).


Jackson, P. W., Boostrom, R. E., & Hansen, D. T. (1998). The moral life of schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 10, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14480, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:02:02 PM

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About the Author
  • Barbara Stengel
    Millersville University
    E-mail Author
    BARBARA STENGEL is a Professor of Educational Foundations at Millersville University (PA). She is the author (with Alan Tom) of Moral Matters: Five Ways to Develop the Moral Life of Schools. Her current work focuses on the concept of pedagogical responsibility and on fear as a facet of educational interaction.
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